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Centronics parallel interface

The Centronics parallel interface is an older and still widely-used standard I/O interface for connecting printer s and certain other devices to computers. The interface typically includes a somewhat cumbersome cable and a 36- pin male and female connector at the printer or other device. The cable plugs into a 25-pin parallel port on the computer. Data flows in one direction only, from the computer to the printer or other device. In addition to eight parallel data lines, other lines are used to read status information and send control signals. Centronics Corporation designed the original Centronics parallel interface for dot matrix printers. In 1981, IBM used this interface as an alternative to the slower one-bit-at-a-time serial interface.

When the Centronics parallel interface was first developed, the main peripheral was the printer. Since then, portable disk drives, tape backup drives, and CD-ROM players are among devices that have adopted the parallel interface. These new uses caused manufacturers to look at new ways to make the Centronics parallel interface better. In 1991, Lexmark, IBM, Texas instruments, and others met to discuss a standard that would offer more speed and bi-directional communication. Their effort and the sponsorship of the IEEE resulted in the IEEE 1284 committee. The IEEE 1284 standard was approved for release in March, 1994.

The IEEE 1284 standard specifies five modes of operation, each mode providing data transfer in either the forward direction (computer to peripheral), backward direction (peripheral to computer), or bi-directional (one direction at a time).

  • Compatibility mode is the original Centronics parallel interface and intended for use with dot matrix printers and older laser printers. The compatibility mode can be combined with the nibble mode for bi-directional data transfer.
  • Nibble mode allows data transfer back to the computer. The nibble mode uses the status lines to send 2 nibble s (4-bit units) of data to the computer in two data transfer cycles. This mode is best used with printers.
  • Byte mode uses software driver s to disable the drivers that control the data lines in order for data to be sent from the printer to the computer. The data is sent at the same speed as when data is sent from the computer to the printer. One byte of data is transferred instead of the two data cycles required by the nibble mode.
  • ECP mode (Enhanced Capability Port mode) is an advanced bi-directional mode for use with printers and scanner s. It allows data compression for image s, FIFO (first in, first out) for items in queue s, and high-speed, bi-directional communication. Data transfer occurs at two to four megabytes per second. An advanced feature of ECP is channel addressing . This is used for multifunction devices such as printer/fax/modem devices. For example, if a printer/fax/modem device needs to print and send data over the modem at the same time, the channel address software driver of the ECP mode assigns a new channel to the modem so that both devices can work simultaneously.
  • EPP mode (Enhanced Parallel Port mode) was designed by Intel, Xircom, and Zenith Data Systems to provide a high-performance parallel interface that could also be used with the standard interface. EPP mode was adopted as part of the IEEE 1284 standard. The EPP mode uses data cycles that transfer data between the computer and the peripheral and address cycles that assign address, channel, or command information. This allows data transfer speeds of 500 kilobytes to 2 megabytes per second, depending on the speed of the slowest interface. The EPP mode is bi-directional. It is suited for network adapters, data acquisition, portable hard drives, and other devices that need speed.
The computer must determine what the capabilities of the attached peripheral are and which mode to utilize. The concept developed to determine these factors is called negotiation. Negotiation is a sequence of events on the parallel port interface that determines which IEEE 1284 modes the device can handle. An older device will not respond to the negotiation sequence and compatibility mode is selected to operate that device. A newer device will respond to the negotiation sequence and a more advanced mode can be set.
This was last updated in May 2010

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